Tackling Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Apartheid – Part 2, The Solution…

Read part one here…

It is clear that Northern Ireland has a stark east-west divide in transport infrastructure. One which fails to fully reflect its population distribution, and raises questions of sectarian policymaking and a Belfast-centric nature to governance here.

It is also clear that the era of car dominance in urban areas is slowly drawing to a close worldwide, which Northern Ireland will inevitably catch up with. Climate change and a desire for more liveable towns and cities will place increasing emphasis upon alternative ways to move people around. And rail offers the most viable, efficient, sustainable and appealing option for transporting large numbers of people between our key regional towns and cities. There is also significant and growing demand for the notorious gap in the rail map of the island to be addressed, and such pressure will only increase over time. For all these reasons it is therefore essential that Stormont begins to plan for the delivery of a transformational investment in rail provision across Northern Ireland. Yet this is the only part of the UK or Ireland that has not re-opened any mothballed railway lines this century, and the percentage of our infrastructure expenditure that is allocated to public transport is significantly lower than anywhere else in the UK. So whilst there is doubtless a case to be made for investment in certain road projects across NI, there is also no shortage of voices constantly demanding such expenditures – and particularly amongst our politicians. Meanwhile there are almost no high-profile figures continually championing the case for good quality public infrastructure that covers all of NI’s major towns, its airports and every one of its six counties. That would be the single greatest transformational investment that could be made to NI’s transport infrastructure, and it’s what is proposed here.

A PRINCIPLE-BASED RAIL RENAISSANCE

So where should rail be reintroduced in NI ? As a starting point it is prudent to acknowledge that we won’t return to anything like the network that existed in the years before cars, buses and lorries. There are places where the viability of rail will be extremely challenging due to limited population, location or topography – particularly small isolated towns that are not en-route between much larger population centres (e.g. Ballycastle, Dungiven, Newcastle). Rail is expensive to install (though about half the cost of road) and expensive to run, with any proposed new projects having to pass stringent economic appraisals to be deemed value for the public money involved. So we have to acknowledge that there will be places for which good quality bus provision is a much more realistic public transport solution for the foreseeable future. However – if we’re serious about sharing prosperity, opportunity, population and economic activity more evenly across NI, we also need to stop putting every key project onto a financial weighing scale and passively letting that process tell us which should be progressed. Especially as such viability tests always under-estimate demand for rail services, and struggle to factor-in non-economic considerations. The final say on whether to progress with certain rail projects in NI should therefore come down to political calls, rather than just spreadsheets – particularly where the individual business cases deliver a marginal ‘fail’ score. Though even with such a practical approach, we have to acknowledge that it still won’t be viable to return rail to everywhere.

RAIL ACCESS – FOR EVERY KEY TOWN AND AIRPORT

So where should get its rail back, and what should the priority list be ? I would advocate a principle-and evidence-based approach – in which Stormont communicates a clearly stated ambition to guide its expenditure and activity moving forwards, and to manage public expectations. One based primarily upon population. It would be sensible to expect that every large town within Northern Ireland (i.e. 18,000+ population) should have access to rail. That would assert that Omagh should be reconnected to the rail network as an absolute priority. And even though places like Enniskillen, Armagh City and Dungannon are smaller than that, they are still considered important towns by Northern Irish standards. Which therefore makes the case for our Medium Towns (i.e. with a 10,000+ population) to also have access to rail. I would therefore suggest that the principle should be that we aim to ensure every town classed as Medium-sized or larger (population of 10,000+) as of the 2011 census should either contain a railway station or have easy access to one within 5 miles. In addition we should also ensure that NI’s 3 public airports – as significant generators and enablers of mobility, and key gateways for business and tourism – are also connected by rail. Particularly as all 3 have rail running so close to them already. If that principle and ambition was accepted within Northern Ireland, it would mean reconnecting all the key county towns in the West to the rail network again (Omagh, Dungannon, Strabane, Enniskillen, Limavady and Cookstown), as well as some important ones in the East (e.g. Armagh). It would revolutionise the rail map of Northern Ireland, and create the best connected airports on the island. And it would return rail to every one of our six counties for the first time in over 60 years.

This principle requires three important clarifications. Firstly – it doesn’t mean that ONLY towns with 10,000+ people should get rail. Well over half the current stations in NI already serve places smaller than that. And it is likely that any restored lines would include halts for smaller locations on the path between our larger settlements (e.g. Newtonstewart in Tyrone). Nor does it mean that EVERY town with a population over 10,000 absolutely must have rail restored regardless of the cost. There may be towns who’s location away from the main inter-urban rail routes makes it challenging economically and demand-wise to justify the cost of providing them with a spur (Downpatrick being one possible example). Instead the principle recommended here is about establishing a readily-understood benchmark to guide government policy and public expectations as as to where rail could be restored, and where the priorities should be within that. Secondly – the 2011 census has been chosen because even the most basic data from this year’s count wont be available until Summer 2022. The Department for Infrastructure is compiling a new transport strategy for NI this year, which will necessitate decisions being made prior to the next census results being released. In reality, little of relevance will have changed between the two counts anyway – with Ballyclare the most likely contender to have expanded into the 10,000+ population bracket (and it already has rail access close by at Mossley West). Thirdly – in some instances, bringing rail right into a town may necessitate a level of cost and complexity that becomes difficult to justify. Especially where it would involve re-routing an existing rail line. It is not unreasonable to expect people to view a rail station less than 5 miles from where they live as both local and accessible to them – particularly if it has direct and frequent bus services, a sufficient car park, good quality cycle storage and ideally safe segregated cycle routes to it. Take for example Banbridge – NI’s 15th largest town (16,637 population).

A sizeable number of its residents commute regularly to Belfast, Lisburn, Lurgan and Portadown – all of which are on the rail network. Banbridge is 4 miles from the Scarva halt on the main Belfast-Dublin line, which in 2019/20 had the second-lowest usage of any station in NI (4,472 total passengers, or 12 per day). Banbridge is large enough to merit rail access as a medium-sized town, and the patently under-utilised Scarva Station is just a few miles from Banbridge Buscentre. Yet only 3 buses run from Banbridge to Scarva station on weekdays, none on a Saturday, and only one on a Sunday (8:25am). Scarva itself has a tiny population of 320, so few trains currently stop there. All of which points to a really obvious and cost-effective way to make rail more accessible for Banbridge, and more feasible for Scarva, whilst also generating additional revenue for our publicly-subisdised rail network. And that is to re-name Scarva Station ‘Banbridge-Scarva’, give it a park and ride and safe cycling access, have more trains calling there (particularly to and from Belfast), and introduce a shuttle bus service to and from it that is synchronised with the rail timetable. Limavady (population 12,032) is another case in point – located 6 miles from Bellarena station (population 332) on the Derry-Belfast line.

That is just outside the 5 mile threshold recommended here, but close enough to provide an interim solution whilst better rail access for the town is pursued. Bellarena is NI’s 46th busiest rail station out of 54, and was completely rebuilt in 2016 at a cost of approx £3m. Its planned park and ride facility has remained unfinished and fenced-off since, however, and the 6 daily service buses between it and Limavady are not coordinated with the train timetable. Both Banbridge and Limavady are perfect examples of the lack of imagination and coordination that exists within Northern Ireland’s public transport system – despite a single publicly-owned company operating rail and bus together. Translink have yet to fully grasp integrated transport or modal shift, and are failing to play their part in contributing to these policy objectives of the Department for Infrastructure and the NI Assembly. It simply isn’t good enough for such a heavily subsidised public organisation to not be striving to maximise passenger numbers in these ways.

So what would a rail network that connected NI’s key towns and airports look like, and how much would it cost to install ? Below is my recommended list of the routes this would reopen, and a very indicative outline of costings. It should be noted that all the recommendations involve re-instating previously moth-balled rail lines – the majority of the former track beds for which remain intact to this day. It should also be noted that whilst most of the projects recommended below are in the West, not all of them are. Given that rail works as a network, improvements to any part of it benefits ALL who have access to the system (including in the East). Connecting our 3 airports to the rail network will also be of benefit to everyone across the entire island, whilst also expanding the catchment area and viability of NI’s airports. Finally – whilst there has been talk of a future all-island High Speed Rail network, the only proposals below that would be impacted by that are the improvements to the existing Belfast-Derry line, plus the opportunity high speed would present to re-route the existing line to better connect Limavady.

The indicative cost range is between £1.77bn and £2.3bn – depending on whether more future-focused proposals are included (e,g, the Lough Neagh loop). For perspective – dualling the 58 mile long A5 roadway is likely to cost approx £1.2bn, whilst the current work to the A6 is costing £420m for just 26.5 miles and will still leave a quarter of the road as single track. Public transport could therefore be revolutionised across ALL of NI for barely more than the cost of just two current road schemes. If the British Government is sincere about wanting to improve connectivity within and between the component parts of the UK, it could deliver transformative change and equality to our public transport network for less than a tenth of the cost of a bridge or tunnel to Scotland. Indeed – there simply must be no bridge or tunnel to Scotland without and until these improvements are delivered.

As for where we should start – Omagh is by-far the largest town in NI without rail access at the moment, and reconnecting it would also mean restoring rail to a number of other key towns along the same Derry-Portadown route. So for my money, Omagh and the Airports should be our Number One priorities.

CONCLUSION

There exists a stark, undeniable and unjustifiable disparity in infrastructure between the Eastern and Western halves of Northern Ireland. That is plain to see from any map. What is less obvious is that this transport disparity is further exacerbated by east-wide divides in related factors like car ownership and deprivation. And in addition, NI’s infrastructure is merely the most visible manifestation of a deeper East-West split that exists across many key aspects and indicators of everyday life here. This is the direct aggregated result of over half a century of individual public policy and spending decisions. And there is no indication that those running Northern Ireland – whether in politics or the civil service – genuinely realise or acknowledge the geographical apartheid that they and their predecessors have collectively spent most of NI’s existence creating. The disparity that exists in infrastructure should finally be addressed through the adoption of an evidence and principle-based approach to developing a modern public transport network here. One that is based upon key town population, and would ensure that access to rail is no longer divided here primarily along the lines of religion or geography. A programme to revolutionise public transport provision across NI could be delivered for approx £2billion – less than a tenth of the estimated costs of a bridge or tunnel to Scotland, and eminently more useful to the people of Northern Ireland. Addressing the much deeper attitudes that created our stark East-West divide in the first place will doubtless prove much more challenging, however. As it is always easier to challenge and fix that which you can at least see.

 

 

 

 

 

HOW COSTINGS WERE CALCULATED

• Costings outlined for each of the projects above can be considered broadly accurate, but are intended just to give a feel for scale of funding likely to be involved.

• They are entirely indicative figures, arrived at via :

1) Using an industry-standard base figure of £10m per mile of track. That figure does not include cost of stations, bridges, rolling stock or land purchase – which have had to be factored in separately. However, the £10m per mile figure also reflects the cost of installing completely new routes, whereas all the projects above involve reopening existing trackbeds.

2) Comparison with the costs of the Border Railway in Scotland, where 35 miles of formerly mothballed line were reopened in 2015 at a total cost of £353m (of which £295 was construction, at 2012 figures).

3) Reference to some of the figures given in Stormont’ 2014 rail strategy.

4) Discussions with rail professionals/experienced campaigners.

5) Figures assumes restored lines are single track with dynamic passing loops & double-width bridges

• Important to note rail is unlikely to generate surpluses whilst operating, so will require ongoing public subsidy each year – which would also need to be factored in. In return, however, it provides a public good/service with huge economic and social benefits. Which is why it is publicly funded like schools, hospitals, libraries etc.

Read part one here…

Main Photo © Albert Bridge (cc-by-sa/2.0)


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